Metro Weekly

White House wants to end NSA’s bulk phone data collection

616px-National_Security_Agency_headquarters,_Fort_Meade,_Maryland-thumb-580x327-6104The National Security Administration has come under intense scrutiny and criticism for the depth and breadth of its data collection procedures. The ongoing scandal surrounding the NSA‘s sophisticated and far-reaching collection methods has been repeatedly addressed by the Obama Administration as they attempt to calm a public that has grown increasingly intolerant of the government invading their privacy.

This January, President Barack Obama announced plans to limit the amount of bulk-collected data the NSA used to look at phone records and track suspicious activity. The NSA wouldn’t stop its current practices, but would be subject to oversight and periodic audits that would aim to stop the abuse of normal citizens’ private data by the government, as well as third-parties that attempt to steal such data. There would also be yearly reviews of the policies in places used to analyze and collect data, as well as the release of declassified information on policies where appropriate.

Three weeks later, the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) approved two of the President’s measures, which specifically limited the NSA’s access to American citizen’s phone records. Moving forward, the NSA would have to seek court approval whenever it wanted to access someone’s records and could only move two degrees of separation from their initial target when seeking information.

Today, the White House announced even greater reforms to the way the government collects and uses data. The draft proposal would take the data from the NSA and put the telecom companies in charge of it. Any data collected would be held for up to 18 months and the companies would be “compelled” under court order to submit and records required in a “timely manner” and “usable format”. Furthermore, any records requested by the government could be collected again “over a limited period of time without returning to the FISC for approval”.

President Obama reportedly believes the draft proposal will ensure the the government can meet any and all intelligence requirements while also boosting public confidence in the government’s handling of collected data. The administration has been in contact with congressional leadership to discuss the legislation required for the implementation of the proposals. The President “[looks] forward to continuing to work with Congress to pass a bill that achieves the goals [he] has put forward”. In the interim, the Department of Justice will seek a 90-day reauthorization of the current program from the FISC, including the court’s modifications enacted in February.

Image Credit: NSA


On the basis of these consultations, and after having carefully considered the available options, the President has decided on a proposal that will, with the passage of appropriate legislation, allow the government to end bulk collection of telephony metadata records under Section 215, while ensuring that the government has access to the information it needs to meet its national security requirements.  Under the President’s proposal, a new program would be created with the following key attributes:
the government will not collect these telephone records in bulk; rather, the records would remain at the telephone companies for the length of time they currently do today; 
absent an emergency situation, the government would obtain the records only pursuant to individual orders from the FISC approving the use of specific numbers for such queries, if a judge agrees based on national security concerns;
the records provided to the government in response to queries would only be within two hops of the selection term being used, and the government’s handling of any records it acquires will be governed by minimization procedures approved by the FISC;
the court-approved numbers could be used to query the data over a limited period of time without returning to the FISC for approval, and the production of records would be ongoing and prospective; and
the companies would be compelled by court order to provide technical assistance to ensure that the records can be queried and that results are transmitted to the government in a usable format and in a timely manner.


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Rhuaridh Marr is Metro Weekly's managing editor. He can be reached at